A national climate report released last Friday from 13 federal agencies predicts increased flooding and hotter temperatures in Midwestern states like Missouri — and that unless carbon emissions are significantly reduced, changing climate patterns could be costly.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that hotter temperatures could cost the region’s economy $10 billion by 2050 due to premature deaths and lost work hours from heat stress. As storms intensify and become more frequent in the Midwest, the report’s authors expect that the cost of adapting urban stormwater systems to extreme weather could exceed $500 million by the end of the century.
“This is not a problem for our children, our grandchildren. This is a problem today,” said John Hickey, director of the Missouri Sierra Club. “If you look around Missouri with a fair-minded eye, you can see the flooding, the tornadoes, the droughts, the worse air quality and the heat waves.”
In the Midwest, the assessment indicates that agriculture could be hardest hit. By 2050, heavy rains and rising temperatures could cause agricultural productivity in the region to fall to levels last seen in the 1980s, it said. It also notes that temperatures in southern Missouri could exceed the threshold at which corn and soybeans fail to reproduce.
Farmers already are experiencing the effects of climate change, said Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union. Oswald, 68, grows corn and soybeans on his family farm in Langdon, just three miles from the Missouri River.
“We’ve seen really significant changes in the way the river behaves,” Oswald said. “Typically we would be finished with the harvest by the end of October or the first few days of November. But we still have almost a third of our crops out because of mud, because of excess rainfall. The high river [levels] has prevented drainage.”
The federal report also projects that rising humidity will create favorable moisture conditions for pests and pathogens that ruin crops and stored grains.
Environmentalists stress that Missouri needs to become less dependent on fossil fuels and invest more in renewable energy. Coal fueled more than 80 percent of Missouri’s electricity in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That makes Missouri one of the most coal-dependent states in the country, said Maxine Lipeles, director of the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic.
“We’re not doing nearly enough on the mitigation side,” Lipeles said. “It’s putting our folks more at risk. The changes are inevitable, and they’re going to be more dramatic. This report underscores that policy has to be science-based. It can’t be based on whether somebody likes supporting the coal industry.”
Some environmental experts, like University of Missouri-St. Louis economist Lea-Rachel Kosnik, believe that a tax on carbon emissions would be an effective solution.
“It would be helpful to have some sort of tax that affects broad sectors of the economy,” Kosnik said. “If everyone changes their behavior a little bit because their heating bill goes up a little bit, gas prices go up a little bit, it could move the needle.”
Another way to address climate change could be to use land management strategies, such as preserving grasslands and forests, that encourage carbon storage. A study published in Science Advances this month showed that Missouri ranked fifth among states in terms of the impact that conservation strategies could have on offsetting harmful carbon emissions.
The report indicated that in Missouri, reforestation would make the biggest difference. The Nature Conservancy is working on reforesting riparian buffers, areas along the edge of Missouri’s rivers, said James Cole, director of conservation programs at the Missouri chapter.
“There’s areas in the state that we can really focus on reforestation,” Cole said. “It would also help communities in terms of flooding and water quality.”
Among the state’s public lands, the officials have already implemented natural forest management, a strategy highlighted in the study, said Megan Buchanan, a research silviculturist at the Missouri Department of Conservation. It involves conducting prescribed fires and longer rotation harvests — a tactic that supports long-lived, high-quality trees that can store carbon.
“All of those things help improve individual tree vigor and make them less susceptible to threats from drought, pests and diseases that are expected to increase,” Buchanan said.
Reforestation, however, would have a greater impact on privately owned lands, she added. But there needs to be financial incentive for landowners to want their properties to be reforested. Of the forested lands in Missouri, 82 percent are privately owned, according to data from the Missouri Department of Conservation.
While placing an economic value on the environment may help stress the dire consequences of climate change, public awareness of the changes that have happened and will happen remains vital, said environmental economist Lea-Rachel Kosnik.
“I do feel like as [climate change] gets worse and worse, more and more people at the individual level will start seeing it and feeling it,” Kosnik said.
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